Why did the Dalai Lama ban Dorje Shugden?

Meindert Gorter explores the history and reasons behind the Dalai Lama's ban on the deity Dorje Shug

The Dalai Lama has given several reasons to explain the excommunication of the protector, Dorje Shugden, back in 1996. However what he has actually seemed to be doing is adapting the gravity of the ban to match the level of protest against it within the Tibetan community. In some interviews he has even denied having banned the deity; he only wanted to give a warning, people can make their own decision.

The deity is accused of fundamentalism because he obstructs the mixing of the four main schools of Buddhism, which is supported by the Dalai Lama and his teachers. The Dalai Lama said the thought of Dorje Shugden bothered him while taking initiations from one of these, the Nyingma lineage.

We, who stubbornly go on with the deity-practise, don’t see any reason whatsoever to mix the lineages. Each lineage has its own unique transmission; if mixed we think it's like mixing an apple pie with a banana split: you will end up with an undefined mess. There is a lot of mutual respect between the lineages so why give them up?

Knowing the Dalai Lama’s status and the adoration Tibetans feel for him, his words caused turmoil in Tibetan society. Solely due to social pressure, people decided to abandon the practice of worshipping Dorje Shugden, choosing to live by the lines set out by the Dalai Lama.

After all, continuation of this practise was bad for the Dalai’s health and damaging the Tibetan cause, and who wants responsibility for that? Serious Dorje Shugden practitioners however felt it impossible to choose between the two. "The Dalai Lama wants me to choose between my father and my mother," said some when asked why they would not stop. Others, more philosophically trained monks and teachers, found the ban to be anti-Buddhistic and for that reason alone would not stop.

Gradually the pressure on Dorje Shugden practitioners got worse. Fanatical Dalai Lama followers began to demolish statues of the deity, the existing social solidarity amongst Tibetans was gone. Even in Tibet itself, where restoration of temples is in full swing and people enjoy new religious freedom, this ban created suspicion. Dorje Shugden worshippers were accused of being part of the ‘Dorje Shugden sect’ and became outcasts. The Dorje Shugden Society was founded, an ad-hoc group of people working together to oppose the ban - not to save the enlightened deity from harm but to help thousands of people from becoming outcasts.

But numerous appeals and worldwide protests have not helped. The Dalai Lama has not responded and refuses all contact. If you think the Dalai Lama is only in the business of provoking positive sentiments, as most Westeners believe, you have to firmly close your eyes to imagine this less romantic reality.

During speeches in India in January 2008, he has enforced the ban more strictly then ever before, claiming that his own religious freedom is obstructed by Dorje Shugden.

The last years brought us forced signature campaigns, in which monks promised to stop propitiating Dorje Shugden in return for obtaining travel documents from the exiled government or to be admitted into monasteries. Last January monks were engaged in weird actions such as swearing in a loud voice to denounce the deity. All contact with those monks that have not followed the ban is forbidden. This implements a de-facto apartheid with signs forbidding monks from entering classrooms, hospitals and shops. They even have to study and dine separately.

However, in spite of all this, there exists some solidarity with the Nyingma monks helping the Dorje Shugden monks to survive within this hostile monastic environment.

Meindert Gorter is a student of Kundeling Rimpoche, a major critic of the Dalai Lama’s ban on the deity Dorje Shugden. He lives in the Netherlands with his wife and two children.
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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.